Excellence on display at Harry Jerome Awards
May 15, 2019
Ross Simmonds was destined to be his own boss.
With his grandfathers’ owning a farm and a paving company, the entrepreneurial spirit was shaped at a young age and demonstrated in high school when he used his locker as a storage facility from which to sell durags.
In university, Simmonds started a fantasy sport site which he turned into a marketing blog.
“Growing up around family members who had their own businesses allowed me to see how much control they had over their lives,” said the 31-year-old digital marketing strategist who was among three Nova Scotians recognized with Harry Jerome Awards on April 27. “That appealed to me. I wanted to have maximum control of what I was doing and the best way to do that was through entrepreneurship.”
After graduating from Saint Mary’s University a decade ago with an undergraduate degree in Commerce, Simmonds started Altego Marketing Solutions which was a consulting company before joining Colour, a creative social agency with offices in Atlantic Canada, Toronto and New York.
In 2014, he started Foundation Marketing that works with global clients, ranging from Fortune 100 companies to growing start-ups, to leverage content marketing.
“We believe that content excellence can be achieved through the combination of craftsmanship and intelligence,” Simmonds said. “Our approach brings both of these elements together to deliver content that is worth creating and sharing.”
In addition to working with brands, he’s a featured speaker at global conferences on digital marketing, content experiments, B2B (business to business) strategy and online communication.
As an introvert growing up, Simmonds – the middle of three children -- has broken out of his shell.
“My nickname was ‘Shy Ross’,” said the 2009 CBC Krista Harris Fellow. “I didn’t speak much in class and I wasn’t outgoing. That all changed when I read an article that said if you want to progress in business, you have to be a good public speaker. I invested a lot of time speaking at local events and training to get to the point where I am very comfortable speaking in front of audiences.”
The married father of a nine-month-old daughter said the St. Mary’s Sobey School of Business flexible program also helped prepare him for life after school.
“I participated in many extracurricular activities, so I had the opportunity to volunteer with different community groups, serve as Vice-President of the Marketing Society and pitch business ideas in competitions,” said Simmonds who authored ‘ Stand Out’ and ‘The Hustle Manifesto’. “Those initiatives give me the confidence I needed to know I could go out and start a business on the side while doing a nine to five job.”
Michelle Sears, Tourism Nova Scotia’s Digital Marketing Advisor, has collaborated with Simmonds on several projects.
“Knowledgeable, well-spoken and intellectually driven and determined, Ross worked as both a leader with his team and as a facilitator with ease,” she said. “His knowledge of social media has helped not only us as clients, but also the many tourism operators in the Atlantic region through his presentations.”
To be successful in business requires building a brand that stands out against the competition.
Having a personal brand identity that sets you apart also helps.
Following the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Simmonds – whose favourite television show is ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ -- often wears suspenders.
“It’s something that I think is very cool and interesting,” he noted. “When people see me in it, they know it’s Ross.”
Simmonds’ parents, Hank and Debbie who is the Minister at the East Preston United Baptist Church, along with his wife of three years – Kristen – accompanied him to the Greater Toronto Area for the awards ceremony.
“Beyond my immediate family, I have received a lot of support from Margaret Fraser (the East Preston United Baptist Church Finance Chair), Rustum Southwell and the Boys & Girls Club of Preston,” added the Black Business Initiative board member. “I am truly Preston-made in that both North & East played a pivotal role in my upbringing.”
The rural Black Nova Scotia community also produced Shaquille Smith who was the recipient of the Harry Jerome Athletics Award.
“When I looked at the list of winners who have been acknowledged with this award in the past, to be in the same company with them is quite the honour,” he said. “To be recognized at the same time with Ross is truly amazing as we are from a small province and even smaller Black community.”
Smith, who is a digital strategist at Colour in Halifax, holds Simmonds in high esteem.
“He played a role in me getting a job there,” said the 2016 Acadia University Business graduate. “It’s awesome to have a mentor like him to look up to and bounce ideas off.”
The university basketball standout has left an indelible mark in his community by helping to raise $300,000 to refurbish a basketball court in North Preston that has turned out several outstanding players, including guard Lindell Wigginton who is seeking to become the first Nova Scotian to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
He left Iowa State University State after two seasons to declare his eligibility for the June 20 NBA draft.
“The court was in really bad condition and I wanted to give young people access to a proper playing surface,” said Smith. “I am hoping that sport will inspire them to want to seek higher education. North Preston has had a long history of athletes going on to university and playing professional sport. In the last few years, I have seen far too many students dropping out of university after the first or second year.”
Just as he was about to graduate from university and was considering playing professional basketball, Smith learnt that his girlfriend – Janessa Tynes – was pregnant with their daughter.
“I had to weigh my options at that point,” he said. “I could either try to play pro ball professionally or be with my young family which is what I decided to do. Having a pretty decent job also factored into my choice to stay home.”
Soon after the basketball court project was completed, Smith launched ‘The Futures Program’ which is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young people use sport to advance their careers.
Never before in the 37-year history of the Harry Jerome Awards has three trailblazers from a province outside Ontario secured recognition on the same occasion.
Southwell, who mentored Simmonds, was the Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
“I am so proud of Ross and how far he has come,” said the Black Business Initiative (BBI) interim executive director. “He’s quite the entrepreneur in his own right and he’s one of my bosses because he’s on the BBI board. He is also doing amazing work with Volta Labs which is one of Canada’s largest innovation hubs and he’s one of the top speakers on content management. We created an opportunity for him and he must be credited for doing the work himself. This guy is a game-changer.”
When the federal and Nova Scotia governments established the Halifax-based BBI in 1996, Southwell became the first staff member as the Chief Executive Officer.
Created to address the unique needs confronting the province’s Black community, the BBI is committed to growing the Black presence in a diverse range of business sectors, including technology, manufacturing, tourism and culture.
With Southwell at the helm, the BBI has created in excess of 1,100 jobs and trained about 1,000 people that are now key players in some of Canada’s top performing companies. The combined sales of Black-owned companies have contributed more than $1 billion to the economy.
Health administrator Dr. Dominick Shelton is in rare air as one of three distinguished Canadians to be honoured twice with Harry Jerome Awards since the Black Business & Professional Association (BBPA) started the program in 1983 to honour the memory of Jerome who set seven world track & field records and helped created Canada’s Sports Ministry.
The late Bromley Armstrong (1990 & 2011) and Stan Grizzle (1987 & 2010), who were part of the 29-member delegation led by Donald Moore that went to Ottawa in 1954 to protest the federal government’s restrictive immigration policy that shut out Blacks and other visible minorities, are the other two-time winners.
Shelton was recognized in 1989 for academic achievement.
In accepting the award for excellence in Health Sciences, he paid tribute to Dr. Miriam Rossi who, along with him, Diana Alli, Dr. Kristine Whitehead and support from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine’s were instrumental in launching the university’s summer mentorship program 25 years ago that offers a focus for Black and Aboriginal students with both an interest and aptitude for the Sciences, particularly for those who otherwise would not have available mentorship opportunities.
Rossi, who played a lead role in helping to bring the program to fruition because of her position as Associate Dean of Student Affairs in the Faculty of Medicine, died last July at age 81.
“She opened doors for me and many other people,” said Shelton who is the Medical Director of Quality & Safety at Sunnybrook Hospital Emergency Department. “I am standing on her shoulders and it’s quite a privilege that I have been able to have a platform to give back to the community.”
Leslyn Lewis, the founder and Managing Director of Lewis Law Professional Corporation, dedicated the honour to her deceased parents Vivian and Livingston Lewis.
“These were strong and inspirational people with solid Christian values,” said the Conservative Party candidate for Scarborough-Rouge River in the last federal elections. “I am who I am today because of them.”
The 2018 Harvard Law School Institute for Global Law & Policy Program scholar articled on Bay St. and practiced civil & commercial law in large firms prior to opening her own full-service law firm.
Lewis, who has a Ph.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School, said her passion for Law was innate.
“At a very young age, my parents saw certain attributes and they gave me nicknames like ‘The Little Barrister’,” she added. “From a very young age, I knew I would be a lawyer.”
Other winners were Canadian Women’s Foundation President & Chief Executive Officer Paulette Senior, National Bank Financial Managing Director & Vice Chairman with responsibility for Fixed Income Currencies & Commodities Ray Williams, CTV’s ETALK entertainment reporter Traci Melchor, Wendy Beckles who is the only Black female President & Chief Executive Officer of an integrated healthcare campus in Ontario, Toronto Mass Choir co-founder Karen Burke, award-winning filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon, Multicultural Association of Perth-Huron co-founder Gezahgn Wordofa who has a doctorate in Law & International Relations from the University of Moscow, five-time Juno Award winner Exco Levi and Grace Foods Canada Inc.
In 37 years, a total of 447 Harry Jerome Awards have been presented to individuals and two organizations – Eva’s Initiatives in 2005 and Grace Foods Canada this year – for excellence in myriad fields.